Wednesday, March 2, 2011

House: A Love Story

That's probably the second misleading title in a row for me. No, this isn't House fan fiction or anything of that awful sort. This is something that came to me as I was watching the latest episode of the show to appear on Hulu, last week's "Two Stories." The title of that episode, as well as the basic narrative structure, is meant to recall "Three Stories," a season one episode that is perhaps the best the show has ever made (though I'm a big fan of season two's "No Reason" as well, and would happily make an argument that its the best). This is the story of my relationship with House, a relationship which grows more and more complicated with every season.

When House first premiered in the fall of 2004, I was a novice to this whole pop culture thing. A 15-year-old high school freshman, I was just in the beginning of my formative years, and I had just recently begun what would evolve into a long-term love affair with the movies, and as a byproduct television (as a band geek and chorus kid, I was already immersed in the world of music; I wouldn't dive deep into the joys of theatre until the following year). I had my television niche, of course: mostly Nickelodeon shows such as Hey Arnold! or Invader ZIM that aired in the afternoon right after school, since the primetime hours were my time for homework. It wasn't until January, when a close friend of mine recommended the show, that I first saw House. The episode was "Poison," a fairly standard episode in retrospect, but at the time I was amazed by what I saw. This was television more sophisticated than I had previously known. The medical cases were fascinating mysteries, as the patients-of-the-week kept my curiosity sharp in my desire to know what the diagnosis really was. The supporting cast was interesting too, each providing a kind of foil for House. But it was House himself that caught my attention the most: here was a doctor, the paradigm of kindness and human optimism, who was cynical, cold, amoral, and outright mean, a medical antihero who didn't ignore ethics so much as make up his own. He got away with this for two reasons: one, he may have been a halfway decent man before his leg muscles started degenerating, leaving him with a Vicodin addiction and pissy demeanor, and two, he was a diagnostic genius, rarely losing patients and figuring out illnesses that no other doctors could. He inhabited a moral grey area, doing bad things for good reasons, saving people's lives through sometimes-illegal methods.

Something about House, played to perfection by Hugh Laurie, really got to me. Though I wouldn't see another episode after that one until the end of the first season, and again when it became available on DVD, the character stuck with me. He was intelligent but bitter, selfish and brutally honest, and for some reason I related to him. Or, at least I thought I did. Truth be told it was more of I wanted to be him: the tragic antihero who tires of society to the point where he blatantly flaunts the norms, operating on his own moral code. At the time, I was experiencing my first break-up, the end of a nine-month relationship. I was the one doing the breaking up, and I had a really hard time knowing that I was breaking the poor girl's heart (I was, and still am, a big softy at heart), and watching House I admired the way he could hurt people without even a second thought or attempt at empathy. In my mind that was courageous, and I wished that I had that kind of invincibility to the pains of being human. I couldn't be that person, though, and was indeed hurt by those events. But I later realized that being House has its consequences: loneliness, a life with few friends but many, many enemies. I couldn't live that kind of life, and I'm glad that I didn't have the "courage" to be like House.

But after that first season I couldn't turn away from the character or the show. During the second season I started watching the show when it aired, along with what would eventually become my favorite show of all time, Lost (a show that I have defended several times in this blog, and will continue to defend until the bitter end). I was engrossed by the show's ability to be more than just an engaging medical mystery, but also an even-better character study of a uniquely original man (yes, there was once a time when House was the only character like that on primetime TV). Every week the show would dig deeper into what makes House tick, and his caustic wit was equal parts shocking and hilarious. The show's second season ended with the aforementioned "No Reason," an episode that dealt directly with the inner workings of House's mind in a twisty episode that involved a grotesque patient-of-the-week and House being kept in the same hospital room as the man who shot him at the episode's beginning. It was cerebral stuff, and it only made House and House more fascinating.

Something happened in the show's third season, though: it started off strong, with House finding an equal competitor in crooked-cop-with-a-grudge Detective Tritter (played by the always-phenomenal David Morse), but one that arc wrapped, it started to lose its edge. The patients-of-the-week become increasingly unmemorable and boring, with only a few good ones thrown in. The best example of the latter is "Insensitive," in which House treats a girl who's genetic condition prevents her from feeling pain. Its an episode that requires House to come challenge himself, and plays into the long-standing theme of the show that, as Mick Jagger once said, you can't always get what you want (that song was something of a recurring bit itself in the show's early seasons). But the third season finale featured a twist that showed how desperate the writers were getting to keep things fresh: House fired his entire team.

Before, say, the midpoint of House's third season, I would have told you that the show was my second-favorite, only behind Lost. But the end of the third season started to shake that idea. But I remained optimistic (contrary to House-ian philosophy), and hoped for the best during the show's fourth season, in which the Bad Doctor built a new team Survivor-style, introducing a bevy of new characters to the story. The problem, though, was that none of these characters were all that interesting. There was no emotional investment in their lives (at first), and there didn't seem to be any real stakes. The writer's strike ended up cutting this season short, but when it was over the original team had somewhat come back to Princeton-Plainsboro and the new team consisted of Kal Penn (of Harold & Kumar fame), Peter Jacobson, and Olivia Wilde. But the show's two-part finale once again renewed my faith in the show, diving into House's head again and testing his relationship with Wilson, which is the only truly believable relationship the show has made to date.

The show's fifth season continued to test my faith, as the overall quality of the show further declined and, as I was now a freshman in college, I watching it and other shows through Hulu. Hulu had opened me to the broader world of television, allowing me to watch more shows whenever I wanted (in fact, the only show I never watched through Hulu was Lost, which I made a point of seeing when it aired). As a result, I was turned on to other, greater shows: it was during this time that I discovered the snarky humor of 30 Rock, not to mention the fact that Lost had hit a major creative strive and was firing on all cylinders. House, though, was hiring a goofy private investigator to keep an eye on Wilson and everyone else in his life. Though House's relationship with Wilson was strained, it never seemed like there as anything at stake. For most of the season, silly shenanigans made up most of the plots, including one that introduced Death Cat, a cat that could predict a person's death. The show was fast becoming a shadow of its former self, no longer a character study disguised as a medical mystery but rather a soapy dramedy. Most of this can be attributed to the character of House himself: though Laurie never stopped excelling in the role (he remains to this day the best part of the show), the character devolved from an angry cynic who numbs his pains with drugs to a petulant 10-year-old boy trapped in a man's body, the kind of character that Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughn have made careers out of playing. He became, and continues to be, an impish prankster who makes mischief for the sake of doing so. Its no longer interesting, just heartbreaking.

Since then, though, the show has had its flashes of its old self. The best example of this starts toward the end of season five, when it was announced that Kal Penn had been selected to work in the White House for President Obama. This meant the character would have to leave the show, and the writers made this happen in an astonishing fashion in "Simple Explanation": he commits suicide, leaving no reasons for why. This rattles the entire team, but most importantly House, who desperately searches for logic in Kutner's (Penn) suicide. Its an arc that works excellently, because it shatters the entire system of reasoning that House has created for his world, and leaves him questioning everything, including himself. This carries on through the season six premiere, "Broken," in which House checks himself into rehab and gets cleaned up. This should have introduced a new House worth exploring: could his special brand of ethics survive sobriety, or would kicking his Vicodin habit make him a better or worse doctor? Does House need to be the old House in order to achieve the same results?

The answer is unknown, because instead the writers introduced more and more ridiculous plots, such as Chase murdering an African dictator, and made House more and more into a child. To be perfectly honest, I almost gave up on the show after the season six episode "Black Hole," an appropriately-named episode that features a machine that can visually display someone's dreams. Yes, that is correct. Thankfully, the show hasn't returned to that well yet, and there's at least a little real-world plausibility to everything it does now. But the House-Cuddy relationship exists only because fans demanded it, not because it was natural or inevitable. And though its nice to see House changing, that change has been so inconsistent and falsely earned so far that it doesn't carry any real weight. If season-one House were the one engaging in this relationship, then it would be far more interesting to see, but as it stands, its just another empty plot.

This is what infuriates me about the show: it should have been so much more, and every new episode makes me long for the show that it first was. But there's the key point: I still watch it. I haven't missed an episode yet, and every time a new episode is added to my Hulu queue I watch it as soon as possible. Its not because House is still among my favorite shows on television; as of now, Modern Family, Dexter, The Chicago Code, Justified, Louie, 30 Rock, Lights Out, The Walking Dead, and Glee (on a good night) are better, and those are only the shows that I have time to actually watch. But I can't give up on House. I still call myself a "fan" of the show, even if I don't love it as much as I once did. Maybe its because I have a hard time giving up on something once I get started on it. Or maybe its because I still hold out hope, foolishly enough, that it will become the show it originally was, and when I do see those glimpses at what could have been, I'm reminded of why I fell in love with this show in the first place. Somewhere deep down, the 15-year-old me still harbors some admiration for Dr. House, and can't wait to see what he does next.

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